Covered Topics

Please see the list of the topics I've covered. It's located near the bottom of the page. Thanks for stopping in!!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Want The Tried And True Firefox 3.6 back?

Here's a link I found for downloading Firefox 3.6.23:

In Mozilla's very next release, Firefox 4.0.0, some new and potentially serious security issues were introduced. You can read about them at the links below:

One issue, the WebGL (Web-based Graphics Library) feature, was NOT a part of the 3.6.x versions, so the above mentioned 3.6.23 would be safe against this vulnerability. Note, too, that the WebGL problem in Firefox affects ALL operating systems - Windows, LINUX, ... [FYI, WebGL is used to create 3D graphics in a web browser without extra plugins.]

Several sites have quoted that "Firefox 5 was the security fix for 4.0.1." How very nice :s)

Until Mozilla gets its issues worked out, I'd either recommend sticking with 3.6.23 or going with 6.0 or later. I've downloaded the 3.6.23 files for both Windows and LINUX and am storing them, just in case Mozilla decides to pull them off the site. I may yet want them again.

Something to Consider:
Representatives from Red Hat and Novel/SuSE told me during recent telephone conversations that they are sticking with Firefox 3.6.x in their enterprise products - at least for now. The U.S. Air Force's LPS LINUX also comes with 3.6.23.

To me, this speaks VOLUMES about what people needing reliability think of the current Mozilla mess!

Have Fedora and Ubuntu Left You Stranded? Here's Some Guidance

I use a removable "drawer" system on my home lab computer - one drawer contains Fedora 14 and the other contains Ubuntu 11. Both are behaving badly, though in different ways. Ubuntu 11 will not allow me to install ANY software - whether it be through the graphical software manager or via the command line "apt-get" utility. This happened after another partially failed automatic update. Fedora WAS working OK, except my Kdenlive video editor got irrevocably corrupted with the recent Firefox update debacle I wrote about a while back. See my posts during July-September 2011 for more details on recent LINUX and GNOME 3 issues. Yesterday, when attempting to burn a data DVD, the Brasero DVD burning utility crashed. No amount of re-booting or cajoling will make it work. I believe this also happened due to a software update, as it DID work shortly before Fedora issued a bunch of updates a couple days ago.

Thoroughly fed up, I am shopping for a new LINUX distro. I had planned to buy a Red Hat Enterprise LINUX (RHEL) or a Novel SuSE subscription to get away from the instability of what I have been using. I figure that what is geared for the corporate user would meet higher quality standards; at least I would have a phone number to call rather than spending hours online trying to find answers. As a grad student on a very tight budget, I find the $180+ price tag for a one year subscription a bit steep right now. And so I started looking anew for a suitable free replacement.

The following two sites were very helpful for doing a quick comparison of different distributions:

After reading these sites and visiting a number of online forums, I have picked out the following three for closer evaluation and testing:
CentOS 6.0, Debian 6.0.1, LINUX Mint 11

My criteria were stability, security, availability of the applications I regularly use, AND last but not least a conservative approach to development and updates. Here's a quick rundown of the choices I narrowed the field to:

CentOS 6.0: CentOS is a clone of Red Hat Enterprise LINUX (RHEL). It is supposedly intended for "business users who don't want to pay a business price." From what the guy at Red Hat told me on the telephone a couple weeks ago, if I bought RHEL and needed software that wasn't in the RHEL repository I still could get it from the Fedora repositories. The Fedora repositories are a riskier bet, but at least they are available if needed. RHEL 6.0 still uses GNOME 2.0.x desktop - I would ASSUME CentOS does also, but I don't really know one way or the other. I'll deal with that in a future post about CentOS.

Debian 6.0.1: Debian is well known for being "tested 'till destruction", to quote a couple sources I've read. It IS more difficult for the average person to install, but from everything I read it is robust, secure, and reliable. Many different distributions are derived from it and there is a huge software library for it. Debian still uses GNOME 2.0.x desktop, according to what I've read.

LINUX Mint 11 LINUX Mint is in many ways like Ubuntu, but it is also a competitor. Like Ubuntu, it is a Debian-derived distro. Mint 11 uses GNOME 2.x, though this might change next year when Mint 12 or 13 arrives. There is discussion on their site about either using GNOME 3 or maybe forking GNOME 2.x to something called "Mate" desktop that would (hopefully) retain compatibility with GNOME 2. We shall have to wait and see. Mint 11 comes "out of the box" with Java and Flash plugins installed so you can watch you-tube videos and access Java applications online. VERY COOL. I have already started initial tests on this one - more to come in my upcoming MINT post.

All I can say about the eventual use of GNOME 3 is I hope the above-mentioned distros clean it up before foisting it upon us as did Fedora and others.

Even the US Air Force has developed its very own LINUX distribution! Called "LPS" for "Lightweight Portable Security", it is intended to be kept on a bootable USB thumb drive and uses an encrypted file system. It can also be installed to a hard drive as with any other distro. It is also designed to prevent corruption of the essential operating system and software files, even if an online session does get hacked. It comes with Open Office and some other goodies pre-installed. I'll likely check this one out, too - I rather like the rationale on which it was based. Below is the link for more info and downloads:

Air Force's Secure LINUX Distro:

Stay tuned for results of my testing of the above-mentioned distributions.

Meanwhile, here are some links to articles I thought were useful for securing your LINUX system:

Some inside scoop on security

How to secure your LINUX system:

More Internet Censorship On The Way In Good Ol' USA?

As with most news that we really NEED to be paying attention to, the "Protect IP Act" is something the mainstream media is NOT covering much in its "news" programs. While billed as another attempt at stopping music and movie piracy, it definitely has the earmarks of something far more sinister.

Having worked in the electronics and IT-related industries, I have read much about the "Protect IP Act" recently - but for those of you who are uninitiated, here's a quickie 3-4 minute video that explains what could happen quite soon:

Kudos to Mate Gelei for putting this up on his blog!!

I am completely against piracy of other people's intellectual property and hard work. However, this looks like a tool more useful for social control, curtailing free discourse, and manufacturing consensus, rather than for protecting copyrighted work. As pointed out in the video, media companies already have a powerful arsenal of laws and regulations to use against piracy. This is akin to burning down the house because you found two or three roaches in the kitchen.

So, what can we do?
Besides boycotting companies who are spearheading this, there IS technology available to help.

A while back I wrote about "mesh networks" - which are a stealthy way of creating Internet access which bypasses the regular government or corporate controlled network infrastructure.
Just as truckers use CB radios to warn each other of adverse road conditions ahead, such a stealth "internet" could well be about the only way the common man (or woman) will be able to get REAL news and information at some point. Just look at the conditions in China, the recent commotion in Egypt, ... for examples. In these situations even cellular and land line phone networks were mostly shut down. Another possible scenario where a mesh network could really help is a natural or man-made disaster that could take down normal communications services. During such emergencies, mesh networks and amateur radio could really make a huge difference in helping ordinary folks.

Such "mesh" or ad-hoc networks could span anywhere from a city block to a large metropolitan area - perhaps farther using some creativity. These would be relatively hard to control or shut down, and would be fairly robust even in situations that would knock out standard DSL, cellular and land line phone, or cable access.

Along with shortwave radios and amateur "ham" radio, this is something every freedom-loving person might want to look into.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

PVC Blowgun

Regular visitors to this blog know already that, besides high-tech pursuits, I have a few of what some folks would consider rather anachronistic interests. Topics covered here have ranged from the latest Free Open Source Software, computers and networking, electronics, shortwave and amateur (ham) radio, to pre-1982 telephones and archery. Off and on during the past few weeks I have enjoyed shooting an unusual and primitive weapon: the blowgun.

A (very) Brief History:
Blowguns have been used by indigenous peoples all over the world, including those in the Americas. They originally were made from 7-10 foot lengths of cane or wood which had been bored out into a hollow tube. The darts ranged in length from six inches to over a foot in length and consisted of narrow splints made from bamboo, cane or other stiff material. The person shooting it would wind cotton or some other fibrous material on one end to serve as an air seal in the tube. These darts in some cases were tipped with plant or animal-derived poison; in other cases they were used "as is" to shoot small game. Some people took birds with a short, relatively heavy "blunt" cylindrical or marble shaped dart designed to stun, rather than penetrate the prey.

As an aside, one book I read a few years ago indicated that the native blowguns and darts brought back by European explorers may have inspired the invention of the reciprocating steam engine. Indeed, the operating principles of both ARE strikingly similar - both involve a compressed gas acting upon a movable piston.

Modern-day blowgun use:
Even today, some peoples inhabiting the Amazon River Basin and other remote areas of the world still use blowguns for hunting. Some native American tribes hold contests and give shooting demonstrations as part of keeping their cultural traditions alive. During the past couple decades in America, many people have enjoyed them as an outdoor sport. There are even organizations that promote blowgun shooting as a sport:

In the US, The United States Blowgun Association

and internationally, The International Fukiyado Association (IFA)
Parts of this site are written in Japanese.

Now, for the details of my blowgun:
The blowgun is 50 calibre, consisting of a 5 foot piece of 1/2" ID schedule 40 PVC water pipe. A 1/2" to 1.25" pipe bushing serves as the mouthpiece. The larger end was heated with a heat gun until pliable and flared slightly - this gives a more comfortable surface to seal against one's mouth.

The darts are made from bamboo kabob skewers purchased at the grocery store. The air seal cones were made from 1.5" square pieces of printer paper folded to the cone shape, then glued to the skewers. When dry, the whole dart assembly was coated with spray paint for moisture resistance.

I haven't gone into any more detail because nothing here is unique - there are many sites on the Internet where one can find details on constructing just about any kind of blowdart imaginable.

In the picture of the darts, a shorter dart made from a roofing nail is shown next to the bamboo skewer dart. The paper cone air seal is identical to that on the skewer dart. Though the roofing nail is shorter and heavier, it flies more reliably and carries a much greater impact with the target. The foam archery target cannot be used with these because, even at a 50 foot range, the nail darts bury themselves beyond retrieval into the target's surface. A thin sheet of plywood would be most appropriate for stopping these projectiles.

The "range" shown in the top picture is a parking spot in a municipal park. From the 'near' end of the white line to the wood fence where the target is positioned measures approximately 25 feet using a measuring tape. All of the targets shown in the pictures were shot by me standing as this distance, unless otherwise noted.

In one of the close-up shots, one can see that a dart pierced the air seal (cone) of another one already in the target. Almost the blowgun equivalent of "splitting the arrow" in archery.

The green circle in the photo shows where two of the roofing nail darts buried themselves into the target face. One was shot at 25 feet; the other was at approximately 45 feet. The skewers penetrate between 2 and 2.5 inches into the target.